Since most of you reading me at present are also my friends on Facebook or, you know, my actual family, then you’re already aware that I celebrated a birthday on Tuesday. Of course, by “celebrated”, I mean I sat in my living room for many hours preparing for an over-the-phone job interview that lasted about ten minutes. Hopefully the preparation-to-action ratio was appropriate but better than the “three days to seven minutes” that was utilized for the last one. I may be over-preparing though I can’t say for sure.
As I was saying:
I turned 41-years-old and found this oddly more bothersome than last year when I turned forty. Forty, it seems to me, is some big event. The thirties are over; you’re officially turning this corner into middle age. People have big parties (pity or otherwise) when you turn forty. The BIG 4-OH! and all of that.
Nobody cares when you turn forty-one. Forty-one is just another year older than you were last year when you officially became old. Now, I’m sure that the 50, 60, or even 70-year-olds who may be reading this are chuckling at my pronouncement of age, but that’s only because they can’t remember anymore how it was that they felt when they, themselves, turned 41. Sure, I’m old but they’re really, really old.
Now it was nice that, by the count on my phone, some 106 of my closest friends cared enough to post the very best on Facebook (though I don’t know what was wrong with the other 300 or so of my so-called friends) letting me know that they had taken at least seven seconds or so to say hello and wish me well. I, of course, say that sarcastically but it was actually nice. All day long my phone would alert me with a vaguely Asian gong-like chime that someone had posted to my wall. It was nice. What were birthdays before we had this website to validate us? How did my father spend his 41st birthday?
I do that often in my head. I take a mental snapshot of my life and hold up against one of my father at the same age. To do it involves some math so I don’t like to do it too often. Plus, he often looks far more accomplished than I do.
For instance, my father turned forty-one in the summer 1983. He was, at that point, working as, if I recall correctly, the General Manager of Exxon’s Bayway refinery. This refinery (that I think I visited all of one time) is part of the miasma of filth in northeast New Jersey that gives the entire state a bad reputation. (As an aside, I think he may be personally responsible for all global warming despite his insistence that it doesn’t exist.) He had a big office with wood paneling and one of those cut crystal booze sets (probably not its official name). He had his own secretary and his own conference room and I’m not sure which was more impressive. He had a company car in the form of a sporty early 80’s Chevy Malibu sedan. He also had a beeper which, to my memory, he was the only one ever to activate. He would call and test it every time before he left the house.
Now let’s compare: I am unemployed and am sitting in my living room wearing the same shirt that, as my wife so lovingly pointed out to me, I had already worn earlier in the week. I’m becoming Jack Butler from Mr. Mom.
But let’s be kind to me a bit. Let’s turn back the clock six weeks or so and try to get a fairer comparison. I had my own office as well. Our shared conference room though was, depending on which you wanted to highlight, either a room literally filled to the ceiling with trash and a couple old sofas that most dorm rooms would turn away or a bunch of old desks pushed together in the middle of a common area. I did not have my own crystal booze set but I did have both some dirty coffee mugs and a couple bottles of year-old beer that someone stored in my fridge. My office had no wood paneling but did have mismatched ceiling tiles dating back to when the third floor bathroom overflowed into my second floor office. As for a secretary, we had Shoe who, bless her heart, wasn’t necessarily all that interested in working but did manage to watch a lot of television. To be fair to her, of course, we weren’t exactly slave drivers. Consider for instance that there was an office rule that, if a wiffle ball in play touches Shoe, it is automatically a triple. Consider that.
Business car? Nope. My own decade old Volvo. Beeper? Probably, if I wanted one. This is likely the only area were I trumped my father as I did have a company-funded Blackberry. Not an iPhone or anything or even a Droid. He probably would have had one of those.
On the homefront, my father was the father of five boys, two in high school, one in junior high, and two in elementary school. He was the relatively new owner of a big, beautiful, central hall colonial in the upscale town of Madison. This housed seven or eight bedrooms, five-and-a-half baths, a circular driveway with a two-car garage, and an in-ground pool. My house could fit inside that garage, what with its three bedrooms and one bath. I don’t have a driveway so I certainly lack a garage. I do have a couple inflatable pools that I have laid out over some weedy patches in the backyard in an attempt to kill the greenery. I live in Lynn, which, even if you squint your eyes and try to blur things out, will never be mistaken for the leafy suburb of my youth.
I have done this comparison repeatedly through life. He graduated from college and immediately began to work for Exxon where he stayed until the day he retired. I graduated from college and immediately began working for WABU-TV where I stayed…until they fired me five months later. They said I had a bad attitude. Yeah? Okay, maybe I did.
Not that I could have stayed there for my whole career as the station no longer exists and the very spot where I was fired is now a cash register at a nice Staples in Brighton. That firing was the last time I was unemployed and it came when I was 24. That would have been 1966 for my father and my oldest brother was, by my math, already in utero.
Amy and I started dating on my 27th birthday. My father was about to be a father of two when he was 27 and would soon be getting “transferred” for the first time from Louisiana to New Jersey. Do they transfer people anymore?
We got married about three years later when I was 30. Maggie was born when I was 33. My father at those ages: working in New York with three kids and working in New York with a fourth on the way. He was involved in the community as some sort of local Republican operative and drove off to play golf every Sunday. We all lived in a split-level ranch with a big backyard and two dogs. I was four.
At any point in time that I choose to make this comparison he is going to be ahead of me in any number of different ways.
So, to be clear, I am not my father. Or am I?
There are those things that my brothers and I would make fun of about my father that we’ve now, in fact, discovered ourselves doing. I think we all talk through gritted teeth when we get angry. I share my father’s bad habit of getting unnecessarily worked-up over spilt milk. I also have his same bad posture and while I don’t eat as poorly as he does, my penchant for cheese tortellini in alfredo sauce is really not all that different than his for putting cream on his cereal. He coached some of us in little league and I coach Maggie in soccer.
But this is how it goes. We really have no choice to, at some level, become our parents and become all the good and bad that it encompasses. We also, by virtue of growing up in a different time, have things that we absolutely do differently. I know all of Maggie’s teachers and see them repeatedly over the course of the year. I saw my father at my school once, when I graduated from high school and he was the one to hand me the diploma as the head of the school board.
When I was growing up we would play outside plenty but we would do it, more or less, on our own. We’d just open the door and head out, on foot or bikes, and return some many hours later. I can’t do that with my kids or, better said, let my kids do that. As a result, I am with them when we go hiking in the woods or walking on the beach (activities both readily available here in Lynn unlike Madison. Take that richies!) My children’s experiences will, accordingly, be different.
I can’t say, and won’t try to figure out, whether it is better to walk in the woods alone or do it with a watchful parent. I can’t say, and won’t try to figure out, whether I’m happier at 41 than my father was. I think he was pretty happy and I know I am. Maybe 39 years from now, Oliver will sit down and through telekinesis or some sort of other futuristic method, wax poetic on what kind of father I was and where I was on this day. I hope he, too, is happy and knows for sure that I was.